Discover the diversity of Middle Eastern cuisine in metro Detroit

Metro Detroit has one of the largest, densest concentrations of Arab-Americans in the country, and thanks to them, a diverse and eclectic mix of Middle Eastern cuisine.

Some of this cuisine is traditional, while some has taken inspiration from Middle Eastern heritage to create something different. When taken as a whole, it's a beautiful melange, and restaurant openings just within the last year suggests the scene is only expanding.

Metro Detroit's largest ethnic Arab group is Lebanese, and its cuisine dominates not merely in number of restaurants -- Cedarland, Al Ameer, La Pita, and Royal Kabob, to name a few -- but also in influence. The most common dishes Westerners associate with Middle Eastern food, like hummus and shawarma, are arguably Lebanese in origin.

"Some say shawarma came from Egypt, some say Lebanon -- I'm not an expert. But it's become a real phenomenon," says Mohamed Sobh, manager at Cedarland restaurant in Dearborn. "You see it in every Middle Eastern restaurant."

You can even find it in non-Arab restaurants. The signature item from the local Bulgarian take-out chain Bucharest Grill is a shawarma wrap.

Sobh's father, who opened Cedarland with his two brothers, is from Lebanon. But Sobh prefers to think of his restaurant in broader terms. "I don't want to define ourselves as just a Lebanese restaurant," he says. "Our community and clientele is Middle Eastern."

Cedarland, which opened in 1986, is one of the older Middle Eastern restaurants in metro Detroit. Its dishes, from lemon chicken to shish kabobs, have become so familiar to us, have been so thoroughly dispersed throughout the region, that it's become a kind of pan-Arab cuisine.

"The way Arab food is presented here is mainly Levantine-based -- that's Lebanese, Palestinian, and Syrian," says Dr. Matthew Stiffer, a research manager at the Arab American National Museum. "This kind of cuisine typically serves more lamb than beef, certainly no pork, and a lot of rice and vegetables."

Lebanese food forms the foundation of Middle Eastern cuisine in metro Detroit, but other Arab dining options have arrived in recent years.

Yemen Cafe is a semi-underground favorite in Hamtramck that recently relocated across the street from its old, slightly cramped space on Jos Campau. The menu, too, has changed. It used to contain mostly dishes you couldn't find anywhere else, such as fahsaah, a stew with meats braised so long you could tear them apart with a spoon. At the new Yemen Cafe, you can still find fahsaah, agaddah, and platter-sized Yemeni pita bread, but diners can also order food found at Lebanese restaurants. You can even get a gyro or sub.

"Yemeni food is going to be a little less refined to an audience used to Levantine cooking," says Dr. Stiffler. "The hallmark is lamb on bone, which is not how Americans are used to eating stew, but is common in the Arab Gulf. Often there's one giant dish that everyone eats from using their hands -- no utensils."

The only utensil you need for Yemeni food is a ripped slice of pita.

Iraqi food has also seen a resurgence. There used to be several options for Iraqi dining when Larry Shallal, co-owner of Ali Baba Shish Kabob in Hamtramck, and his family lived in Chaldean Town on West Seven Mile Road near Woodward Avenue. "Everybody knew everybody. It was all family or friends," Shallal says.

Nowadays there's only one Iraqi eatery left, Sullaf Restaurant, and it doesn't make many overtures to non-Arab clientele. If you're unfamiliar with the cuisine, you won't know where to start. That's because Sullaf doesn't have a menu. Customer services isn't a point of emphasis either; chefs double as wait staff. The food, however, is delicious and plentiful, with everything from braised lamb shanks on the bone to potato curry.

At his restaurant, Shallal wanted to revive the cuisine of his youth, but package it in a more accessible form. Ali Baba, which opened in April 2015, has its own take on kabobs -- a ground lamb and beef mixture shaped on a skewer and grilled over charcoal.

The atmosphere is just as important to Shallal, whose dad ran a members-only social club in a town near Baghdad.

"I want regulars to think of this place like a home," he says. "You can feel free to sit for as long as you want and drink tea or coffee. Nobody will bother you."

"Tea and coffee, especially at the end of a meal, is essential to Arab dining," says Dr. Stiffler. "Meals can take two to three hours, and the beverages encourage people to stay and talk."

There are also restaurants that don't conform to any specific tradition. The menu at Midtown Detroit's Harmonie Garden is totally unique in comparison to southeast Michigan's other Middle Eastern restaurants. Owner and chef Taher Jaber, who is from Syria, grew up in a family of engineers and came to cooking later in life. During a trip to Palestine, he learned how to prepare, and developed a passion for, a Levantine favorite: falafel.

"I like to think we gave falafel a new spirit," says Jaber. His restaurant uses the falafel in unconventional ways, as in the flobby joe (falafel patty with vegetarian chili) or Arabi falafel (a kind of falafel quesadilla without the cheese).

Harmonie Garden, now on Third Avenue in Midtown, first opened in 1993 in downtown's Harmonie Park. Jaber claims his was the first Middle Eastern restaurant located downtown. "Back then, people didn't know anything about the falafel," he says. "I gave out a lot of free samples with an informational brochure explaining what the falafel was. I tried to educate people."

With so many Middle Eastern food options to explore, Dr. Stiffler organizes an annual culinary walking tour in coordination with the Arab American National Museum called Yalla Eat! The first tour made stops along Warren Avenue in Dearborn and in Detroit's Eastern Market. "We wanted to show that Arab food isn't just in Dearborn," says Dr. Stiffler. "The Arab community grew originally in downtown Detroit. That's where they first lived and opened businesses."

This year's tour will take place along a stretch of Michigan Avenue near the museum where a number of new restaurants have opened in recent years. According to Dr. Stiffler, in 1978 there was only one Arab-owned business on that stretch. By the 1990s, there were 10. And in the last few years, five new Arab restaurants and many other businesses have opened.

"What makes metro Detroit distinct is that until 10 years ago, basically all the Arab establishments where you could buy food, both restaurants and grocery stores, were Levantine," says Stiffler. "Recently the region has gotten much more diverse."

Aaron Mondry is a Detroit-based freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter @AaronMondry.
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